Film Classic:

The Canon G III
Rangefinder Camera

Often referred to as the 'Poor Man's Leica', this film camera has reached a cult status among those in search of classic simplicity with full manual control  ... Yeah, you can drive it in automatic, too ...
 


 

As the film revival movement takes a firmer hold in the digital age, many are turning to instruments from the Golden Age of film cameras: The 1960s and 70s. Indeed, this era produced the absolute apex of mechanical design from a variety of camera makers – some, alas, no longer in existence … such as Minolta, among others. I continue to think of all the fine cameras – at a variety of price-points – that we simply took for granted as child photographers. All-metal, tank-like construction was the norm for countless cameras that started at only $100 (okay, often translating to something closer to the $500 mark in today’s money).

It was an era when camera makers really tried to produce fine products with a genuine enthusiasm for engineering – some more successfully than others – before camera manufacturers became bottom-dollar conglomerates, focused on quarterly earnings. A time, indeed, when a singular camera design would have a retail shelf life of 10 years – or more – rather than being the fleeting camera of just one summer season. And a camera’s actual usefulness extended way beyond that decade-long display life. The very fact that these classic cameras are being revisited some 25 ~ 50 years after their introduction is a testament to that. And increasingly, more of the newer generation of photographers are coming to know that many of the optics associated with these cameras are the equal of the most modern, computer design-assisted lens formulations of today – zooms, aside. It was a time when single, fixed focal length lenses ruled.

And in this more current ‘Back to Basics’ phenomenon, there are those who choose cameras that represent the merger of minimum fuss simplicity – with full manual control capabilities, all with minimal physical intrusion. To several people, this is best represented by a quality rangefinder camera. And of this genre, Leica and Contax would surely come to mind for many. But for many more, the required cash seldom comes to the wallet – particularly for young photographers who have already spent over $1000 for a MacBook and iPod. Then there was the expenditure of their SLR digital camera, prior to that. Yet others, more flush, are still rightly reserved in spending so much on an experimental whim that just may not be for them, further not considering resale potential.

What’s In a Name and Sealing The Deal

It is for any or all of the above groups that I investigated a camera that has been often referred to as “The Poor Man’s Leica”. More formerly, the camera is designated as the ‘Canon Canonet QL17 – GIII …ummm …QL (again)’ … But, as luck would have it, you’re not paying for the extensive name. At today’s prices, you can get a really nice one for $100 ~ $150, often less (Update: Really clean ones are now often in the $150 ~ $200 range, since this article first ran. Look around and be patient). The minty clean example of this camera, shown here, cost me $60 … no servicing required, outside of replacing the sticky light seals on the rear door that still hadn’t actually entirely deteriorated – or disintegrated – and remained light-tight, in fact. It costs about $10 ~ $15 to replace the seals yourself – or less, if you’re familiar with the inventory at your local crafts store. The actual replacement is also akin to a small crafts project that doesn’t require a master craftsman, if some degree of care is exercised. The process is known as ‘refoaming’ and you can virtually count on doing this (for any camera more than 20 years old) unless the sample has already been refoamed. They, indeed, sell peel and stick kits for the camera on eBay and the biggest part of the job is clearing out the old foam strip material with some lighter fluid and a wooden tool of some sort, like a chop stick and toothpick.

Don’t let such handiwork discourage you from such purchases. If you’re timid about such things, a camera tech can do it for you at a fairly reasonable cost – or should.

The Canon GIII, when newly introduced in 1972, was about $100 and, as I understand it, reached something near the $200 mark by its outro in 1982 ... after Canon had sold 1.2 million of them. So, yes … They can currently cost as much used as they were when first introduced, as new. But no matter. If made today, they’d be a quality $500 camera. And many aspects of the camera does, indeed, exude quality – particularly for those who were born and raised in the age of plastic shooters, inclusive of the expensive ones. To get this impression from a modern camera, you do have to go for a current Leica or recent Contax. In that case, think $2000 or more.
 

From second test roll ... Readily available Fugi 200 print film, processed and scanned at a local drug store for fast, general test convenience.

The Battery: Mercury Rising

One small consideration of this classic Canon is that the original and intended, 1.35 volt battery is no longer available in the States since being outlawed, due to its mercury content – a situation regarding most older cameras from this era. The best currently available replacement, in my view, is the 675 ‘hearing aid’ battery (often sold in 10 packs), nominally rated at 1.4 volts, but I’ve measured them – fresh out of the package – at something closer to 1.37 volts (under no load). That’s just fine and requires no exposure compensation. While smaller in physical diameter than the original button cell, an inexpensive rubber ‘O’ ring wrapped snugly around the battery will take up the extra space in the camera’s battery chamber. I don’t recommend filling up the extra space with aluminum foil, as many have. It’s just too easy for the foil to become displaced, shorting the positive contact to ground. You really don’t want that. Neither does the battery … or the camera.

The 675s are ‘zinc air’ batteries and their life cycle begins as soon as you pull away the paper sealing tab from the battery casing – even under no load. But at their modest cost (about $1, per individual unit), you can afford to change them out every 1 ~ 2 months. I just chuck the old ones into my large vat of molten mercury before I pour it down a storm drain near the playground.

Some use the larger 625A (alkaline) battery in the Canon for an original fit. But at its higher 1.55 volt output, its use technically requires some exposure compensation with this camera, either with the film speed setting – or by recalibrating the meter internally, requiring a camera technician for most people. Moreover, the 625A doesn’t remain linear in output over its lifespan. The 675 hearing aid battery I often use pretty much does, while the larger 625A tapers downward over its life. Not especially good, as it relates to camera meters requiring a constant voltage. Just swap them out, say, every 3 months to be sure. But with this minor consideration out of the way …

The Canon GIII Overview:

As previously mentioned, the general build quality of this camera is high – particularly by today’s standards. Even the chrome is superior to many other rangefinders of it’s time. For example, while there are those who love their older Yashica Electro 35s, the ‘grain’ of the chrome was coarser, and was just too silvery reflective, in my view. This Canon has a more velvet-like chrome finish, with less ‘pebble’. It’s very nicely done and would be typical of cameras more expensive.

When the camera is well and swell, the focusing is smooth with just the right amount of dampened resistance (one of my sub-standard samples has a focusing movement that’s too free through most of it’s range. You’d prefer not to have that). The Canon’s wind lever is also smooth and confident. The one operational feel aspect that falls short relative to the cameras general quality would concern the shutter release. In its state of repose, the shutter button has some wobble and play, when scrutinized. This would be very un-Leica like, yes. But in actual use, you don’t even realize it as you concentrate on composing and shooting your frame. It certainly isn’t a deal breaker, by any means.

But pause for a moment to take your Canon GIII in … It is a strikingly handsome camera. Again, looking more ‘the business’ than several others of the era, from Yashica to Olympus. It looks ‘the money’ … If I could impose my own industrial design sensibilities to it, I would have rolled the corners a bit more, rounding the contours a bit. But a degree of boxiness was typical in the 1970s, for most everything, cameras aside. Beyond this, I would have made the shutter speed ring charcoal grey in tone, rather than solid black – while still retaining high visibility of the numeric legends – a very subtle consideration. I also probably would have continued the satin silver finish of the lens barrel right out to the front element, rather than the reflective chrome ‘bling ring’ towards the front, where filters and shades screw in. Finally, the GIII badge on the camera’s front is visually superfluous and simply prying it off will leave a rectangular cutout in the leatherette – all because Canon did it right, damn it. But this is all nit-picking. It’s a very nice looking camera, as is ...
 

Strikingly Good Looks 


All controls are nicely placed and readily accessible.

There'll be more on my attached lens shade, below.


For those in search of a ‘Poor Man’s Leica’, the Canon GIII can qualify in many respects – more reminiscent of the Leica CL (made by Minolta, actually), perhaps, than any of the Leica ‘M’ series. The Canon’s 40mm, f/1.7 lens (6 elements, 4 groups) naturally draws a comparison to the same focal length of the Leica CL’s standard lens. Of note, however, is the fact that the CL has the potential of using interchangeable lenses, while the Canon has its one fixed lens, permanently mounted in place. But point of fact, many Leica CL owners simply stuck with the supplied 40mm lens, in any event, relative to all of the CLs sold. In truth, when I have to lug two additional lenses around, the ‘grab and go’ charm of the small and unobtrusive rangefinder camera is diminished. While the promise of additional lenses is nice, the rangefinder format invites simplicity. And, indeed, many masters of this format built their entire career and reputation around a single lens.

With this Canon, you simply train your eye to ‘see in 40 millimeters’. Odd though it may seem, it can be more liberating than having an array of individual lenses that you (seemingly have to) choose from, as yet another set of decisions to impede the process. In fact, Internet Photo Guru, Ken Rockwell (www.kenrockwell.com), floated around France with only a single, fixed-lens rangefinder (a medium format type) – even with a large array of equipment available to him back home. In this journey, he only longed for another lens once (probably an ultra-wide, knowing him).

But as a more technical comparison to Leica, there are those who will naturally ponder the potential image quality of the Canon lens, relative to that supplied with the Leica CL. So, here’s the deal, in a nutshell … Most people who view your photographs – if, indeed, you wish other people to see them – won’t be able to tell you which camera shot what image. It’s that simple, particularly at common, mid-range apertures. While I saw a notation at Camerapedia that proclaimed the Canon lens was at its sharpest wide open – at full aperture, this is flatly false, and represents one area where the Leica lens will overtake it, technically – if still without notice for 98% of the population. Remember, the huddled masses aren’t examining the ‘bokeh’ of out-of-focus highlights. You, perhaps, are. And if you obsess on such things, exclusively, you’re missing the point of photography as an art medium. Either camera can produce images that can grab a viewer (or not), without apology, and without anything that could be regarded as substandard.

I’ll further say this … If you can’t get a good, full-frame 12 x 16 inch print out of the Canon, you’re either doing something wrong, the negative or transparency wasn’t scanned properly, or your camera once took a hit that knocked it out of whack. So, as it relates to most practical considerations, the comparison to Leica is entirely valid – as well as incidental. Just shoot with it and enjoy the bright, peep-hole vision of a rangefinder camera that often prompts you to simply see things differently, relative to other cameras you’ve been accustomed to, such as SLRs. It can conjure another sense of vision for you.

In any event, the camera’s relative sharpness is far more up to you, as the photographer. Focus accurately and squeeze the shutter – don’t punch it. As I looked at a variety of ‘Canonet’ shots photographed by other people, I saw some images that were truly excellent, while others looked like they were taken with plastic toy cameras. In the latter cases, I was almost always able to trace it back to ‘pilot error’. I’ve seen similar disparities among Leica images, as well. In truth, once you reach a certain level in quality, differences among lenses are often small, under most practical conditions at common enlargement sizes and viewing distances, relative to print dimensions.

This aside, the Canon GIII offers some distinct advantages over the Leica. One such example would be found in its internal leaf shutter that allows you to sync a flash unit at all shutter speeds – particularly useful for outdoor, fill lighting. The camera also boasts a shutter priority ‘Automatic’ mode (with exposure lock), while still offering full manual control – like the Leica, yes – but unique among relatively inexpensive rangefinders of the day. And the Canon’s QL (Quick Load) film-loading is a joy, taking only seconds before you’re ready to shoot the first frame. Moreover, if the camera craps out on you or suffers an insufferable accident, you just buy another one for around $100. You could pay as much as $800 for a used, replacement Leica CL, as of this day. And in either event, most ‘snatch and grabbers’ dismiss these rangefinders as being cheap, point and shoot cameras – at a glance, moving on to the bigger game, as they perceive it. They’re seldom the wiser.
 


From first test roll ...

Larger rendering reveals every pebble of the running track's 'grain'  ...

Photographed near my home at the famed Milton Academy.


By the way, for you Leica owners who are freaking out and already composing your usual round of irate mail in your head, I do like the ‘CL’ very much – in either the Leica or Minolta-Leitz CLE inception. This is simply an overview of a camera that came so remarkably close in so many respects, independent of its fixed-lens form factor. Give Canon some well-deserved credit for producing such a nicely executed and finished camera for those poor, unfortunate slobs who just didn’t have the cash for your Leica, the impoverished dears …

But for the commoners, Canon provided them with auto-exposure, with button-press exposure lock; full manual control of both apertures and shutter speeds; a bright and contrasty, coupled viewfinder with parallax correction, and even a flash unit that could couple to the focusing distance automatically – all wrapped in a quality piece of mechanical engineering, presented in a metal casing that was very nicely finished with an industrial design acumen that truly represents one of the most handsome cameras produced – particularly when measured against most comparable rangefinders of the day.

Some Things To Know …

The Canon lens focuses down to 2.5 feet, with excellent accuracy, while many of its competitors stopped at the 3 foot mark. That extra six inches can be very nice to have.

Like many cameras of its genre and era, the CDS meter window is mounted in the front of the lens, just above the front element. It was touted that mounting a filter didn’t require any exposure compensation as a result. Not entirely true, actually. The CDS cell is mounted so close to the filter thread that the very ring structure of the filter, itself, can eclipse the metering cell enough to result in a one-stop difference, independent of the filter type or its innate transmission properties – even if it’s a clear UV filter. One may not thinks so, reasoning that the light first passes through a large pinhole perforation before it hits the cell, anyway and, as such, is eclipsed in any event. Don’t count on it. You can measure the difference when a particular filter ring is attached yourself, looking at the meter needle in the viewfinder. Yes, some filter rings are thicker and deeper than others, so it’s worth the moment to check it out. There’s more on this as I further discuss my somewhat unique lens hood, below – that which has spawned so much interest among my readers. But know that for those who primarily shoot negative-based print film, this one stop difference will be of little consequence. It’s just the German in me that seemingly demands academic precision to be applied.

Turning the meter off – virtually … While Canon recommends that you place a cap on the lens when not in use to conserve the battery associated with the meter (acting as something loosely akin to an ‘off’ switch), simply rotating the aperture ring away from the ‘A’ (automatic) marking to any manual f-stop will also extend the battery life by the same amount. Oh, and no battery power (or battery in residence, at all) is required to shoot the camera manually, throughout its entire range. You’re on your own with exposure, whether by experience, a separate meter, Sunny F16 Rule, or an old Kodak data book (not to be confused with the Kodak DATE book, featuring lurid photographs of old girlfriends in provocative poses). In any event, you can keep shooting while others plug in their chargers and … wait … Remember when we could start our manual shift automobiles with a dead battery by giving it a racing push or rolling it down a hill, and popping the gear? It’s kind of like that. You’ve returned to a time when life was easier. Such is the charm. For gone are the days when you could limp a car home as long as you had some duct tape and guy wire under the passenger seat. With Digi-Cars – and Digi-Cams … you’re pretty much fucked.

Another thing you’ll come to know – particularly for those of us more accustomed to larger cameras – is that you’ll inadvertently put smudged fingerprints all over the viewfinder’s front glass as you cradle it. At least, at first. After a couple of days, you become more accustomed to the camera’s relatively diminutive size and keep your fingers poised in different locations, clear of the viewfinder glass. But initially, it seemed like I was cleaning the viewfinder every 30 minutes.

The Hood: What I’ll Give You, Since You Asked …

Since first posting my images of the Canon GIII elsewhere on the Internet, I’ve been most often asked, “Where did you get the lens hood?!” … Indeed, appropriate 48mm hoods for the camera are somewhat uncommon. So, here’s a copy of what became my mass email response …

It’s a UV Filter/Hood combo made by Vivitar for the later, Canon SureShot AF35M -- also using a 48mm thread. I bashed out the glass for two reasons: One, I wasn't sure of the filter's optical quality and, moreover, ... I didn't want yet another air to glass surface -- particularly one mounted so far forward in the shade assembly, that it virtually negated the use of a hood in the first place ...??I found about 3 of them, as a lot, on eBay and bought them for this and future Canonets.

Now ... What one needs to know, should you also locate this old Vivitar stock: The CDS sensor on the Canonet can, indeed, be eclipsed by even a filter ring … I've measured several examples of this. And this hood is no different, with a factor of -1 stop. So when I shot my first test roll, I shot Fugi 200 at 400. This was using a 675 battery (with an 'O' ring) -- nominally rated at 1.4 volts ... but every one out of any package actually measures around 1.37 volts (under no-load conditions) ... well within tolerance, especially considering the small variations of the leaf shutter, itself. If one were to use the higher-voltage of, say, a 625A battery, then you could keep the ASA setting at the rated film ISO and still be within 1/3rd of a stop, with the hood attached.

Now, the second thing: This rectangular hood (rubber, by the way) is, indeed, smaller that other similar arrangements I've seen using step-up adapters and a larger plastic hood of this type. But these eclipse the frame-lines in the finder rather significantly. My hood, pictured, also eclipses somewhat at the lower right, but much less so. I simply tilt the camera down a tad momentarily to see what's behind the small hood intrusion, then recompose. It all goes more smoothly than it sounds -- and more quickly, as well. And no, by the way, the hood doesn't vignette the actual frame at any aperture. One last thing ... Before screwing on the hood, I stretched an 'O' ring around the front, chromed lens barrel -- then screwed on the hood and aligned it in its rotational mount. With that, I pulled the 'O' ring forward, snug against the back of the hood, which then kept the hood from rotating after I aligned it square.

Canon, themselves, once did make a round, ‘back-vented’ hood for the camera that reduced viewfinder intrusion (while not eliminating it), much like Leica. But their current scarcity can command a price in the $40 region – ouch. I got my rectangular samples for $5, a pop.

But why use a hood in the first place? In many circumstances and with several lenses, you don’t have to. And, for the most part, your Canon GIII will snap along merrily without one, naturally. But this particular lens doesn’t take well to light raking across the front lens element, resulting in a potential reduction of contrast long before there’s any discernable ‘flare’, pre se. One could simply use their hand, when applicable. But I always prefer to cradle and poise cameras with two hands … For those of you power plant mutants with three hands, however, you’re good to go ... But, please – don’t put the camera aside until you find a hood for it! Shoot. Remember that in most instance, no shading will be required.

For Film Enthusiasts, Go Ahead. Buy One …

So for those wishing to experience the rangefinder, ‘street-shooter’ experience, this camera is definitely something to keep your eyes open for. Again, more than a million of them were produced, so it shouldn’t be difficult to locate a fairly nice sample. As always, don’t rush – and wait for your moment. If a case happens to be offered with the camera (say, on eBay), have a look at it – even though you’ll likely not use it. Commonly, the Canon cases for this camera deteriorated just by looking at them. The faux leather split all over its cardboard former. You can safely expect that. But what you don’t want to see is anything that looks like a white powder on the case – the presence of mold and fungus. You may reason that the powdery black case kept such nasties ‘off the camera’. But no … It more likely has served as a breeding ground for fungus that has wrapped the camera, making its way into the finder and lens. There can certainly be exceptions to this, but be wary, as a rule – particularly when the camera isn’t actually sitting in front of you, such as it relates to eBay considerations. You don’t want a foggy finder or a lens that has been etched with fungus (typically behind the front glass element).

With the above in mind, this camera offers much for very little. Alas, often times after I write about an item – any item, I see the price go up on the open market for a brief period of time following the article’s release. It usually simmers down after, say 2 ~ 3 months. So, again … wait for your moment.

Then shoot.

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